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Kenyan community comes together to keep a historical treasure green

February 23, 2022

The Lamu Archipelago is a collection of islands on Kenya’s northern coast, separating a maze of creeks, channels, and tidal flats from the Indian Ocean. The area’s dense wetlands account for roughly 70 percent of the country’s mangroves, some 85,000 acres.

Half moon-shaped Lamu Island, at the southern end of the archipelago, is  an important trading port, where people from different cultures have come together for more than 700 years. The island and its largest town, also called Lamu,were important in the development of Swahili culture. Well-preserved historical sites have earned the area recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Because of this historical significance, along with the breathtaking scenery of dense wetlands and sprawling beaches, the island has long been a tourist destination. Unfortunately, the pandemic has severely hurt the local economy.

Last year, Seacology began working with Matondoni, a village of about 3,000 people on the leeward side of the island. The shock of the pandemic had worsened existing poverty, and people were resorting to illegal mangrove cutting and overfishing. At the same time, local authorities struggled to enforce protections for the environment. Working with community leaders, Seacology’s project aims to address both challenges.

Lamu Island has been an important cultural and commercial site for centuries.

Seacology Field Representative Dishon Murage, left, meets with community leaders.

To protect valuable mangrove forests on Lamu Island, we are working with the local groups in charge of enforcing environmental rules. In Kenya, environmental protection is largely decentralized. Local bodies called Beach Management Units (BMUs) and Community Forest Associations (CFAs) oversee nearby marine and land resources and serve as the eyes and ears of the national environmental agencies. Unfortunately, many local groups lack funding and facilities.

As we’ve done previously in other Kenyan communities, Seacology stepped in to fund an office for Matondoni’s BMU. The building will not only give the village a base of operations to patrol the more than 1,100 acres of mangroves in its jurisdiction, but will also offer a meeting place for other community matters. Construction is scheduled to begin soon. A newly formed CFA will lead efforts to teach local people about the importance of mangroves, train community members to survey the trees and the species that depend on them, and replant degraded areas.

The project also addresses some of the economic challenges driving the degradation of the island’s ecosystems. It supports a sustainable beekeeping initiative that will provide jobs to  community members who otherwise would rely on fishing or mangrove cutting. As we’ve seen elsewhere in Africa and beyond, beekeeping can be a great alternative to destructive practices.  Honey is a valuable product to sell locally and to visitors. And because the forest trees provide crucial food for the bees, people have a powerful incentive to protect the forest.

Finally, our partners are engaging local youth through education and hands-on activities like mangrove planting and coastal cleanups. Youth groups have been key players in the project’s progress. Recent community activities have mobilized scores of volunteers, including children and teenagers, to plant more than 4,000 mangrove seedlings and remove tons of garbage from the coast.

The mangroves around Lamu Island, seen at low tide.

Local volunteers help plant mangroves and remove trash.